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ST. CROIX FALLS — As small cities go, St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, is a bit of an eclectic mix. Sitting just 50 miles northeast of the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota), in northwestern Wisconsin, the town is nestled along its namesake—the St. Croix River. A road bridge links St. Croix Falls (SCF) with Taylors Falls, a small, quaint Minnesota town and tourist attraction on the other side of the river. The view of Wisconsin from the bridge, with its high bluffs and fast rapids less than half a mile from flat Minnesota prairieland, makes any newcomer at least curious about how this wondrous transformation in landscape came to be.
With just over two thousand residents, SCF has a strong small town image with a bit of sophistication. It’s got a Main Street (aka Washington St.), turn-of-the-nineteenth-century storefronts, a café, post office, drug store, hardware store, two gas stations, a cobbler, barber, and a couple of corner bars. The town is up scaled somewhat by a solar-powered library, several Aveda salons, a top-notch gourmet restaurant, some of the best East Indian food I’ve ever tasted, organic sustainable farms, and a stately winery that produces some of the best wines in the country (with grapes from California).
When the kids and I first moved to St. Croix Falls more than 10 years ago, a couple of its biggest draws were that it had no street lights and the nearest McDonald’s was 25-miles away. Now we have, yes, a McDonald’s (and aWalmart), two stoplights and a round-about on the way. Growth is for most towns inevitable and often welcome. But in St. Croix Falls our Main Street has felt the effects of the retail giants. Yet the small businesses persevere. Some storefronts are empty, not an unusual site for any city in 2011, but overall the town has stayed vibrant. I judge this not by any statistics but only by the amount of time I wait for traffic before being able to turn onto Main Street on a Saturday morning.
And SCF has variety. We’ve got people from every walk of life, from farmers to transplant executives who make the hour-long (on a good day) commute into the Twin Cities. Not to mention the multitude of cabins. Every weekend throughout the summer, Minnesotans make the trip Up North, hauling boats, fishing poles, canoes, bicycles, jet skis, wake boards and water skis to their Wisconsin lake home or private place in the woods. Most Wisconsinites don’t mind. But a friendly “hello,” stopping at a crosswalk to let pedestrians pass and minding the speed limit in town are all common courtesies expected of visitors.
Summers in Wisconsin are a little bit of heaven on earth. As far as its billing as a tourism destination goes, Wisconsin is one of the most underrated states in the nation. St. Croix Falls alone has a large share of geologic wonders. Millions of years ago, the glacial tract graced most of the central and western portions of Wisconsin, and anyone can experience the effects by hiking on any section of the Ice Age Trail, a thousand-mile footpath located entirely within the state of Wisconsin. Rolling farmland, a winding river, eskers, bluffs, massive boulders, pristine (well, some of them anyway) lakes, wildlife, and fairly abundant forests (although the old growth white pine forest is long gone, stolen in a matter of decades from present and future generations by the early logging companies) are what make up St. Croix Falls. Walking the trails on the Wisconsin side of the Interstate Park in St. Croix Falls (the other side belongs to Minnesota) can put you in northern California faster than a chorus or two with the Mamas and the Papas.
Winters bring ice fishing, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, ice skating and subzero temperatures. Global warming has given us less snow and longer periods of warmth throughout the winter, but it still gets cold in northwestern Wisconsin. The only way to make it through the winter is to get out in it. Dress up right (i.e., in layers) and get outside or stay inside and watch repeats of Three and a Half Men. Nothing against an occasional television show, but I’m a firm believer in the benefits of fresh air and exercise.
Still, with all that St. Croix Falls has to offer—outdoor recreation, friendly people and cheap beer—most tourists pass through St. Croix Falls or stop briefly to ski or camp and then return home. And all of this is fine by me. It’s nice to say hello to visitors and to know that they enjoy what our town has to offer. It’s also nice to count on running into a friendly face at the grocery store or on an evening walk.
I believe that living in a city the size of St. Croix Falls has the effect of making you a better person. The truth is, it’s hard to be anonymous, to not be connected, and to not be accountable for your actions (i.e., you’re less likely to honk at the driver in front of you when it could, in fact, be your daughter’s kindergarten teacher or the man who pours your latte every morning).
For me, SCF is a blend of small town friendliness, a smidgen of big city sophistication and easy access to some of the best nature has to offer.
Karen Chernyaev is a writer and editor who lives in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, with her family. She has more than 25 years of experience in the publishing industry. She edited nonfiction children’s books at Lerner Publications in Minneapolis, Minnesota for 10 years and served as an acquisitions editor at Hazelden Publishing & Educational Services in Center City, Minnesota, the publishing division of the renowned chemical dependency treatment center. Chernyaev currently works as editorial director at Sunrise River Press in North Branch, Minnesota, a publisher of health care books for consumers and does freelance writing and editing. She has worked as a journalist and photographer and is the published author of more than 20 books.